Thursday, November 17, 2011

Congo vs. Zaire

   -Tshisikedi is arriving this morning and President Kabila is arriving this afternoon, says Maman Marie in the front COPERMA office. 
          For the first time in a long time, Maman Marie and I are the only ones in the office and can speak a little more openly and without Hangie forcefully throwing in his two cents.
    -Who are you going to vote for?  I ask.
    -I don’t know.  You know who you’ll vote for when you arrive at the voting booth.
    -Really?  Don’t you think you need to prepare and have at least an idea?
    -It doesn’t really matter anyway, she responds.  There are 11 candidates, including Kabila, but all of them are basically the same.  They all have the same politics and reasons for wanting power.  Since we know Kabila at least a little, maybe it’s best if he stays.
    -You said last year that in Congo you don’t have a government.
    -We don’t have a government, she says chuckling.  But there’s no opposition either.  If there was a real opponent maybe the elections would mean something.
    -That’s true, I say.  Where will Kabila and Tshisikedi be going ?
    -Tshisikedi will be at one end of Butembo and Kabila will probably go over by the cathedral, but he’s leaving directly afterwards.
          The metal gate creaks open and Maman Jose walks into the office.  Her hair is short today and she’s covered in a shawl.
    -Are you going to go and listen to what he’s going to say?  I ask. 
          Maman Marie laughs.
    -He’s going to say the same thing he’s said in all the other cities. 
    -One hundred percent sure!  I say and punch my fist in the air.
          Maman Jose and Maman Marie both laugh.  President Kabila’s tagline for the election is Na Rais 100% sure!  -- Presidency 100% sure.  Apparently the U.S. State Department considers claiming success before elections to be non-democratic, but the phrase, with Kabila’s face next to it, is written all over Butembo and half the city is wearing hats and shirts that proclaim the victory.
          The door creaks open again and Urbain walks in and places a plastic bag on the table in front of me.  Inside there are boxes of medication: paracetamol, antibiotics, anti-diarrhea, and aspirin.
    -Are you ready to go?  I ask.
          I hand my motorcycle key to Urbain and grab a plastic container of fuel and the medication and we leave for the prison.  When we arrive, my heart sinks when I see Maman Vee sitting at the top of the stairs.  Fortunately, Eliza, who’s much less difficult to deal with, is also there.
    -We brought a few films, I say to Maman Vee and sit down on a small wooden bench across from her.
          Their outdoor office must be near the latrine, the smell of feces hangs sweetly in the air.  Urbain hands the DVDs to Maman Vee, and I hand her the medication.
    -I need to watch these first, she says without smiling, to make sure they’re fit to be shown in the prison.
    -They’re videos about HIV/AIDS and STIs, I respond.
    -I still need to verify them.  You can show them tomorrow.
   -Okay, I understand that, I say.  But also, I brought some pamphlets about sexual violence and medical care in Butembo.  I’d like to hand them out to the female prisoners, is that okay?
          I hand a pamphlet to Maman Vee.
    -Yeah, that’s not a problem, she says.
          Urbain, Eliza and I walk over to the metal entrance.  Eliza lets us inside immediately.  I feel the same rush of fear when the door closes behind us, but this time it dissipates quickly.  The prison is a strange phenomenon.  I spoke with a young Congolese businessman who was falsely imprisoned for several days and he explained that what I first saw as pure chaos is actually more structured than society outside of the prison walls.
          Over an evening beer, J.P. explained that when you enter the prison you are immediately given 50 strokes with a stick.  Every prisoner is required to pay $20.00 to gain access to food and security, and $5.00 to be given a bed.  Those who can’t pay are labeled as “slaves,” and anyone can force them to do any work and they aren’t guaranteed food.  Then there’s a tribunal, in which the prison President, or “Kapita,”—the sleeping Shrek I saw before—and the other prisoners listen to the accusation, hear the side of the accused, and decide if they’re guilty or innocent.  The Kapita and his “cabinet” are elected through vote by all of the prisoners.  Each cell has a smaller government and the Kapita is called in to settle disputes only when the government of the cell can’t reach a solution.  Each time the metal door closes behind Urbain and me, we are no longer in Congo, as J.P. explained.  All prisoners are told that within the brick walls, Congo doesn’t exist and they are now living in Zaire.
          Urbain and I are greeted inside by a large, light-skinned woman with red cheeks, indicating that at some point she used the popular skin lightening paste that burns the skin.  She leads us to the right side of the prison, into a high ceiling room with several mattresses on the floor.  She’s the President of the women’s cell.  Inside there are several men crouched over a small coal burning stove.  The air is filled with smoke.  A tall, slender woman is smoking a joint but she quickly hides it when she sees me.  The President, Esther, shooes most of the men out of the room.
    -She’s pregnant, Esther says immediately and points to a woman sitting on one of the mattresses.
          There are four women sitting or lying on the beds.
    -It was rape, says the pregnant woman.
    -Inside prison or outside?  Urbain asks.
    -Outside, she says.
    -And she’s sick, Esther says and points to a lump of blankets.
          The blankets move and a young woman pops out her head.
    -What is she sick with?  I ask.
          Several people died last week from cholera.
    -A head ache, says the young woman.
    -Is rape a problem in the prison?  I ask.  Do the men ever force you to have sexual relations with them?
    -No, says the tall slender woman.  Our problems are medication.  There are many microbes and insects that bite, eating, finding soap to wash.
    -When prisoners are sick they aren’t even taken to the hospital, says a man I hadn’t noticed before.
          The man’s clothes are clean and he’s wearing a rosary around his neck.
    -Those who kill or steal, they leave the prison, continues the slender woman.  But those who did nothing stay, like this Maman.  She’s been here for five years.
          Slender points to Esther who nods her head.
    -There was a Belgian who lived in Beni, he worked at the airport, Slender continues.  There was a day when they said, the Belgian is dead and they said she did it.  Her telephone number was saved in his phone, so they said she killed him.
          The little two or three year old with round eyes who previously popped up next to the sleeping Shrek, patters into the room.
    -Does she live here?  I ask.
    -Yes, says Slender.  Her mother is in here.
    -Do the prisoners bother her? 
    -No, they don’t touch her and they don’t touch us.
    -I was told that a fourteen year old girl was kept here overnight and raped, I respond.
    -No, Slender responds waving her hand in the air as if to clear the smoke of a lie.  That girl came and they were all drinking.  She started drinking, maybe she couldn’t hold her liquor.  She was drunk and they closed the door at 5 p.m.  She slept in this room with us and in the morning her family came and she left.  We lock the door to our cell at 4 p.m.
    -She went to the hospital for treatment, I say.  She says she was raped.
    -No.  I’m 23 years old today.  If a man approaches me and we have sex and if he doesn’t give me some money I’ll go to the police and say he raped me.  I’m a grown woman I won’t let a man rape me.  To do that you must bring four or ten.  There are 20 year old boys in here and they say he raped a 40 year old woman.
           The little girl, Lauren, sits down on a bed next to a man who’s ironing clothes.  She sits quietly with a plate of steaming eggs on her lap and calmly begins eating.  The door to the cell bangs open and a small, light-skinned woman stumbles in.  She picks up a huge wooden spoon and starts yelling sloppily.
    -That’s Lauren’s mother, Slender says chuckling.  She’s drunk.
          Lauren’s mother wields the spoon like a weapon and tries to stumble back into the main living space but several men block her and guide her into what looks like another small cell.  She fights them but they don’t use violence and are clearly trying to calm her down.  The man with the rosary leaves our group and squeezes past the quarreling clump by the door.
    -Who was he?  I ask Slender.
    -He’s a prisoner!  She exclaims.
    -Oh, I thought he was a priest.
    -He is, she says and bursts out laughing.
    -Why is he in here?
    -Rape! She yells and laughs harder.  Always rape.
          I turn back towards the ruckus by the door at the sound of crying.  Little Lauren is standing by her swaying mother with tears streaming down from her little round eyes.  Slender walks over, picks her up and walks back to us.  Lauren stops crying but sniffles and wipes her nose on a chubby little arm.  The smoke from the mini-stove turns sharp and bites my throat.  I try to ask a question but can’t stop coughing.  Nobody else seems bothered by the smoke.
    -I was married with five kids, says the woman with the headache.  My husband hung himself from the ceiling and they said, since you were there, you killed him.
    -Were you in the house? I barely choke out.
    -Yes, I was in the house and he went outside.  Then we found him hanging near the house.  I’ve been here for two years!
          I nod at her and try to rein in the fit of coughing. 
    -They want you outside, says the priest reappearing in our group.  They say you can show the films today.
          I graciously move towards the door of the cell.  Outside in the crowded outdoor space the coughing immediately subsides.  Urbain and I knock on the metal door and Eliza immediately opens it.  Outside, there are several people dressed in black robes with white bibs setting up a table next to one of the barred windows.  The Congolese judicial system at work.


  1. Another fascinating, well written blog Amy. I don't envy you trying to sift through all of the stories the prisoners are telling you in terms of getting to the truth. But maybe knowing who's lying and who's not isn't the point. The conditions in this prison are nothing short of tragic. It is striking that this prison is purely punitive and has no rehabilitative edge. Not that I was expecting one. I am glad you are trying to take some steps in that direction. I am trying to figure out the mentality of the Slender woman that she can prevent rape based on her age and strength of will. I am trying to wrap my head around why she wouldn't cop to the 14 year old girl being raped. What a complex set of psychological and societal mindsets. A contact in Goma tells me that pyschological care is the missing link in aid to the Congolese. I wish the people in the prison the best. I would love to hear how your films went over. Seems like the answer to Congo's dilemas are as complex as its problems. Unfortunately, I share Maman Marie's skepticism about the elections being a catalyst for that change. But if the elections go off without much fallout, then I suppose that is a success of sorts. And the work you (and those like you) are doing is an absolute good.

  2. many blessings to you for this.


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